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Artists George Segal

George Segal

American Sculptor, Photographer, and Painter

Movement: Pop Art

Born: November 26, 1924 - New York, New York

Died: June 9, 2000 - South Brunswick, New Jersey

Quotes

"Maybe that's why I'm a sculptor, primarily, because I don't get criticized for making a real thing that exists in real space."
George Segal
"All of us start working young, early, because art is magical for us, and we're enchanted by it."
George Segal
"I pay an awful lot of attention to carving out the shape of the empty space in all my pieces. I pay a lot of attention to composing, stacking the pieces, putting the stuff together. And my solutions vary, depending on what I'm trying to say, what I'm talking about. It's literal Cubism for me. I have to be able to walk around a piece, into a piece, and encounter it from any shift of my eyes. I can walk into a group of figures standing around, and any place I click my eyes to look, I've got to be impressed with the shape of the empty space that's going on between figures, and how does it strike me. It has to strike me, it has to hit me. And it's the only way that I know to resolve a piece."
George Segal
"I get intense pleasure from accomplishing, making visible, making something visible and tangible something that starts out as an idea."
George Segal
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"For me to decide to make a cast of a human being broke all the rules of fine art."

Synopsis

Using orthopedic bandages dipped in plaster, New York sculptor George Segal constructed some of the most haunting and memorable figurative art of the twentieth century. Life-sized models based on his body and those of friends, family, and neighbors are seated at lunch counters, poised on street corners, or waiting in train stations. Like actors in a play that never starts, these figures inhabit three-dimensional environments that evoke everyday spaces. One can walk around them (which makes the effect all the more eerie) but they are lost in their own universe. It is impossible to warn them that the moment they are waiting for will never arrive. The most existential of the Pop artists, Segal gives us the opportunity to step outside the fast-paced consumer world in order to get a better look at how we function within it.

Key Ideas

Designed to treat broken bones, the bandage is not just a medium but a metaphor. Segal's plaster cast sculptures, literally the shells of people, can be read as poignant reminders of the human toll taken by World War II. Segal was from a family of Polish Jews, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. Despite this dimension of personal significance, the strength of his work lies in the universal significance of human gesture and expression, evident in Segal's public monuments to the Gay Rights movement and The Great Depression, as well as the Holocaust.
While plaster casts of antique busts had existed for hundreds of years, Segal's practice of dipping bandages into plaster and applying them to a live model was quite new. As he put it, "For me to decide to make a cast of a human being broke all the rules of fine art."
An avid museumgoer and film buff, Segal was a cultural sponge. The sources that informed him range from the mysterious wrapped bodies of mummies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the suspenseful film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s (such as Citizen Kane).
Segal is the most existential of the Pop artists. While other Pop artists (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and others) focused on logos, labels, advertisements, and other mass-produced products, Segal engages directly with the psychology of the consumer. His figures provide a window onto the human condition in a way that sets them apart from other Pop art inventions.

Most Important Art

Man at a Table (1961)
This work is the first of Segal's sculptures incorporating bandages dipped in plaster, his signature medium. Man at a Table depicts a seated, life-sized figure based on the body of the artist himself. Segal wrapped his body parts in bandages and made casts which he then reassembled to make the figure. While less attention is given to specific context here than in later sculptures, Man at a Table is evidence of the key ideas he would explore for the rest of his career. First, there is the contrast between the real (the window, chair, and table are largely unmodified by the artist) environment, and the spectral presence that inhabits it. The use of the plaster bandage calls attention to the vulnerability of the body. Finally, there is the aura of anticipation. The figure, seated alone at an empty table, appears to be waiting for something. This suspense is part of the quiet drama of Segal's everyday scenes from the early 1960s.
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Biography

Childhood and Education

George Segal was born in New York City on November 26, 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, who had come to America in 1922, would lose all his brothers at the hands of the Nazis. Segal's parents ran a kosher butcher shop in the Bronx, working long hours, and dreamt of a more prosperous life for their son.

While attending public school, Segal developed a passion for art. His art teacher nurtured his love of drawing, giving him art supplies and encouraging him to explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Segal's high science and math scores earned him admission to Stuyvesant, one of the city's top public high schools. His parents, who had moved to New Jersey to run a chicken farm, hoped he would become a doctor or a scientist. Much to their dismay, Segal remained focused on art, living with his aunt in Brooklyn while finishing high school and spending weekends working on the chicken farm.

After graduating from high school in 1941, Segal sporadically attended a number of art schools. Due to the outbreak of World War II, his parents needed a hand on the chicken farm, which interrupted his course of study. Nonetheless, he continued to pursue his ambition to be an artist, taking courses when he could at New York's Cooper Union, Rutgers University in New Jersey (where he attended night courses), and the Pratt Institute of Design in New York. In 1949 he finally graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in art education from New York University. He would later return to Rutgers University to pursue a Master of Fine Arts which he received in 1963.

Early Training

George Segal Biography

In 1946, Segal married Helen Steinberg, a girl who lived on a neighboring farm and who he first met in his teens. They bought land across the road from his father and continued in the family business of chicken farming. His pursuit of a career in art was due in part to her unwavering support, and when the threat of bankruptcy loomed in 1957, Segal used his art education degree to get a teaching job at a New Jersey high school. There, he taught art until he was able to support himself and his family solely on his income as an artist.

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George Segal Biography Continues

Throughout his early years of struggle, Segal never wavered from his pursuit of making art and showed an early interest in painting. He and his fellow New York artist friends couldn't help but be influenced by the large-scale, color-filled paintings of the Abstract Expressionist movement that was sweeping through the New York art scene. Despite this, Segal and others in his circle were not inspired to create such works, choosing rather to create works depicting images from the real world. Many derived their inspiration from elements of popular culture and consumer images as seen in the world of advertisements, the media, and comic books; while Segal focused more on the human figure performing acts of daily life such as waiting at a station or talking on the telephone. During the 1950s Segal began to receive attention for his paintings and in 1956 he had his first solo show at the Hansa Gallery, an artist cooperative, in New York.

Mature Period

George Segal Photo

In 1961, while teaching an art class for adults, Segal discovered the substance that would become his primary medium. The husband of one of his students worked for Johnson & Johnson and asked Segal to test a new plaster bandage material and write a text about how the material could be used in art projects for children. Segal experimented with plaster, bandages, and water, manipulating and drying it into the shapes of various objects. To his excitement, Segal realized this included making casts of parts of his own body after letting the material set for only a few minutes. Inspired, Segal took the plaster casts of various parts of his body and recreated them into the form of a seated figure, incorporating objects including a table and chair to complete the work. The work, Man Sitting at a Table (1961), became the first of his plaster sculptures.

While Segal created these sculptures throughout the rest of his career, he continually experimented with different ways they could be made and refined. Moving from casts of his own body, he also used other people including his wife, friends, and eventually his daughter Rena as his models. Segal also explored the effect of adding color by painting the white plaster casts various colors and also painted some sculptures black, such as Woman Sitting on a Bed (1993) which allowed him to focus on the impact of light in a new way. Segal explored the effect of casting his sculptures in bronze and then painting the works white and also made works using only body fragments rather than depictions of the full human figure.

These plaster sculptures, which primarily depicted scenes from everyday life such as figures sitting at a diner and waiting in a station, helped to make Segal one of the leading artists of the Pop art movement. While often the subjects were engaged in some of the less exciting albeit often necessary functions of daily life, Segal also drew inspiration from popular culture. The beloved American pastime of going to the movies was referenced in his sculpture Cinema (1963) - a life-sized plaster cast figure in the act of changing a movie title on the cinema's marquee. Hollywood factored again in his sculpture The Movie Poster (1967) which featured a plaster cast man staring at a black and white photograph of iconic film star Marilyn Monroe.

In addition to his sculptural works, Segal continued to work in a variety of other media including paint, pencil, pen and ink, and pastels. The works created included numerous themes such as close-up studies of body parts, still lifes, and portraits.

His ability to so vividly capture human figures made him a good choice to create outdoor public sculptures. This type of sculpture was becoming increasingly popular in the United States and Segal contributed works such as his sculpture The Restaurant (1976), which was placed at the Federal Office Building in Buffalo, New York. Also, he was offered the commission to create pieces commemorating important world events such as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and tributes to American leaders including United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Throughout his career, Segal saw exhibitions and retrospectives of his work travel through the United States and other parts of the world including an exhibition that began in Switzerland in 1971 and subsequently toured Europe; a traveling retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1978; a retrospective of his work in Japan in 1982; and a 1997 retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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Late Period

George Segal Portrait

Segal showed a renewed interest in photography later in his life. He used the photographs of people and city scenes in both New Jersey and New York as basis for some of his later sculptures and as the starting point for drawings. One of his final series, Nightscapes, began with photographs the artist took of the night lights on the US 1 highway. After returning to his studio, Segal enlarged a photograph onto plywood, painted the scene, and after cutting out holes in the plywood, placed real light bulbs where the lights were in the photograph, creating a three-dimensional recreation of his photographic captures of the highway at night. Segal remained active as an artist until his death on June 9, 2000 in South Brunswick, New Jersey.


Legacy

Segal's reinvigoration of the figure in art after World War II inspired numerous careers, and is part of the story of American culture taking stock of itself in the wake of unspeakable tragedies. The transition he initiated helpedlead the Post-war generation back to the figure. In its focus on one or two people in an urban setting, Segal's aesthetic has roots in the American Realist paintings of the early twentieth century. His unique synthesis of Realism and Pop influenced the life-sized forms and installations of Ed Kienholz, Duane Hanson, Kiki Smith and other artists working today.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

George Segal
Interactive chart with George Segal's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

John Chamberlain
Jim Dine
Kurt Schwitters
Tony Smith
Edward Hopper

Friends

Sidney Janis
Meyer Schapiro
Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
George Segal
George Segal
Years Worked: 1949 - 2000

Artists

Robert Gober
Duane Hanson
Kiki Smith

Friends

Movements

Pop Art
Installation Art



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Useful Resources on George Segal

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
George Segal

By Sam Hunter and Don Hawthorne

George Segal: Bronze

By Joan Pachner

George Segal (Modern Master Series)

By Phyllis Tuchman

More Interesting Books about George Segal
Behold the Lonelyscapes of George Segal

U.S. 1 Newspaper
August 17, 2011

George Segal

Freeze!
John Haber in New York City

George Segal, Pop Sculptor, Dies at 75; Molded Plaster People of a Ghostly Angst

The New York Times
June 10, 2000

Plaster Caste: John Perreault on George Segal, in 1968

ARTnews
September 11, 2015

More Interesting Articles about George Segal
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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Andy Warhol
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Roy Lichtenstein
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Abstract Expressionism
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Duane Hanson
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Kiki Smith
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John Chamberlain
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Jim Dine
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Edward Hopper
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Sidney Janis
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Meyer Schapiro
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Installation Art
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